Guatemala’s Judicial Independence Dilemma

Guatemala’s Judicial Independence Dilemma

An intransigent attorney general is a major obstacle to President Arevalo’s anti-corruption campaign pledge.


Almost four months into Guatemalan president Bernardo Arevalo’s administration, Attorney General (AG) Maria Consuelo Porras remains in her post. Porras is one of Guatemala’s most controversial and polarizing figures. Notably, she is the first attorney general in the nation’s history to be reelected despite having appeared on the U.S. government’s “Engel List” of corrupt officials in the Northern Triangle. In September 2023and following a series of attempts to invalidate the results of the electioncurrent President Arevalo accused her of orchestrating a coup d’etat to prevent his January inauguration. In October, protesters demanding her resignation blocked roads for weeks. The European Union and Canada have also placed sanctions on her.

Despite the widespread and international condemnation of her actions, Porras remains in office and is a major obstacle to President Arevalo’s anti-corruption campaign pledges. President Arevalo has reiterated his commitment to her removal, most recently accusing her of breaching her duties after she walked out of a meeting with him back in January, a potential first step to her dismissal. However, the 2016 reform to Article 14 of the Organic Law of the Public Ministry (the Guatemalan equivalent to the U.S. Justice Department) ensures that the president is not able to fire the Attorney General arbitrarily. So, what is Arevalo to do?


On May 5, President Arevalo announced his intention to re-reform said article, turning to a Congress where his party is not the majority. The proposed bill is basically dead on arrival, in part because Arevalo’s party is not formally a part of Congress. All Semilla deputies are officially “independent” following a ruling by the Constitutional Court in mid-January. Passing the bill would require at least 107 out of 160 votes, which the president and his coalition do not have. As the administration considers its options, a few questions emerge: would this measure strengthen democracy and the fight against corruption in Guatemala, or could it undermine the nation’s already-weakened judicial independence? Should the president consider a public consultation on the issue?

Porras herself had acknowledged the president’s right to pursue a public consultation, which was floated last week. Public consultations, as well as referendums, reflect a regional trend toward direct democracy that leaders are turning to in the face of bubbling and complex sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues. While empowering citizens through this potentially non-binding public consultation could help address the endemic corruption that has plagued Guatemala, it could also raise concerns about the potential long-term impact on the judiciary’s independence. The action does not seek to remedy a larger institutional issue within the judiciary but rather a specific political problem. Revising the already-reformed article 14 of the Public Ministry’s Organic Law would be no different. Any attempt to remove Porras through a reformed law—which has little chance of success, given the current composition of the National Assembly—could set a precedent for future political manipulation of judicial appointments. 

If such a precedent were set, what would be the extent of the authority granted to the executive and the legislative body to decide the fate of individual judicial figures? If unchecked or abused, the country’s judicial independence could be imperiled. This could lead to an increased politicization of the judiciary and increased corruption. Political factions could exploit such a process by aiming to replace inconvenient or unaligned attorneys general with placemen, increasing corruption rather than curbing it. Manipulation would erode public trust even further, turning crucial legal decisions into political maneuvers and hindering Arevalo’s corruption and governance agenda.

Rather than covering up a crack in the wall, Guatemala must instead prioritize strengthening its inadequate judicial institutions. While this would be no easy feat, its success would be a lasting legacy for the current administration. The country has long battled the “criminalization of justice operators,” which has sent over two dozen into exile over the last eight years. Strengthening the country’s judiciary involves seizing the opportunity presented by a potential AG transition—and the strong citizen mandate for the current administration—to set clear, transparent criteria for the removal of judicial figures. One possible way that this could be accomplished is by establishing an independent judicial review body to oversee such processes. Additionally, international actors like the United States and the European Union could support these reforms through funding, technical assistance, and ensuring that any public consultation process adheres to international standards of fairness and transparency.

Engaging the public to promote support and understanding of judicial independence is crucial to the success of these reforms. The mandate that brought Arevalo to office would seem to serve as a reason for optimism due to the burgeoning engagement and growing interest of the Guatemalan public. Initiatives by local organizations such as Movimiento Civico Nacional can be instrumental in educating citizens about the importance of a free and fair judiciary.

As President Arevalo weighs the options for addressing his Attorney General dilemma—from public consultation to a reformed law—he treads a fine line between harnessing public demand for accountability and preserving the long-term integrity of judicial institutions. The allure of direct democracy must be balanced with the need to prevent undermining the foundations of Guatemalan democracy in the long run or setting a precedent that a future administration could abuse. 

Maria Fernanda Bozmoski is a deputy director with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. Follow her on X @MariaBozmoski.

Image: Daniel Hernandez-Salazar /